The road back to L.A. can throw a few curves

Special to The Times

Brian Gillis might not exactly be clicking his heels together and uttering, "There's no place like home," but he's just as glad to be back in the Los Angeles area as Dorothy was to wake up and see Kansas.

He recently returned to Redondo Beach after a job transfer prompted his move about four years ago to Arizona.

Gillis, who works in finance, is part of L.A.'s boomerang population who, through circumstance or desire, left the area and then returned.

Although many organizations track population movement -- the 2004 National Assn. of Realtors Relocation Report, for instance, showed more than 127,000 households left Los Angeles that year while more than 97,000 came in -- no one tracks how many people who leave end up returning years later. The reasons given for bouncing back and forth are fairly universal, however, including traffic hassles, family ties and a desire for a slower pace of life.

According to Peter Morrison, a demographer with the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, return migration is most frequently tied to work.

But sometimes there is a problem.

People grow up in Southern California, leave for college, perhaps work a few years in some other place and then try to return here, Morrison said. Yet often they can't afford to.

"You have asymmetry between high housing prices in Southern California and much of the rest of the U.S.," he said. "One of the barriers to people returning to Southern California is they are basically fenced out by the high price of housing."

People who can afford to return are usually the ones who bought in Washington, D.C.; Boston; or some place where housing prices have shot up as much as they have here, he said. "Your average Joe in Kokomo, Ind., who grew up in Southern California and decides years later he wants to return is out of the picture."

The purchase of a home in Arizona helped keep Gillis in the picture. He was able to sell his home for about what it cost him to buy a condo in Redondo Beach -- roughly $500,000.

"In retrospect, going to Phoenix was fortunate because it was one of a few places that, real estate-wise, kept pace with L.A.," Gillis said.

"Not only did I go to the right city, but I wound up in the right part of the city, so the house I had enabled me to come back here."

When he first moved to Southern California in 1991, Gillis, who's in his late 30s, said friends and co-workers warned him he'd grow weary of Los Angeles. Well, the Amazing Kreskin they weren't. "They said whether it was the traffic, congestion or the prices, after two or three years, I'd get tired of it. But I never did."

Too-hasty move

Michael Sweig did tire of it though. He was living in Manhattan in 1985 when he purchased a West Hollywood home as a secondary residence, which he held onto until last year. Unlike Gillis, his sale was largely prompted by "traffic, too many people and too much of a hassle."

"It was becoming a challenging city to be in. If you wanted to go to a movie, it was a long wait," said Sweig, who is now 60 and makes Lake Tahoe his primary residence. "I'm getting older and wanted an easier life."

But even before the ink was dry on the contract, he regretted his decision to give up his West Hollywood home and tried to nullify the deal.

"The second I went under contract to sell the home I had, I knew I made a mistake," Sweig said. "I had seller's remorse from Day 1."

Sweig, who also has homes in Newport Beach and Chicago, doesn't intend to remain an L.A. outsider for long. "I'm just trying to find the right house at the right price."

Realtor Phyllis Harb of Dickson Podley Realtors in La Canada Flintridge has seen clients leave for many reasons including the desire to live in a state without personal income taxes, overcrowding and high housing prices. Still, she warned, "the grass is not always greener."

Dolly and Roger Crane, 73 and 67, who have resided in Bluffton, S.C., for 10 years in a 4,200-square-foot home on a river after living in a 1,800-square-foot residence in Calabasas, left their home of about 40 years because they couldn't stand "the traffic and prices."

"We couldn't afford to retire and live the way we wanted to live on our pensions," Dolly Crane said. Eventually, however, she did harbor somewhat mixed feelings about leaving her family and social loop in Los Angeles.

She travels to the Los Angeles area two or three times a year for her "fix" of cultural life and restaurants and of course family. If it were her decision alone, she'd likely move back here, she said.

Another option: leasing

The Cranes' situation isn't unusual, said Valerie Fitzgerald of Coldwell Banker in Beverly Hills. She frequently has seen baby boomers leave Southern California in search of a slower pace.

"Many times I have recommended to families, if they might one day feel they may come back to Southern California, to lease instead of sell their home," she said. "When they leave Southern California, many people feel they won't come back, but they do."

As glad as Gillis is to be back, he realizes you can't necessarily go home again. "It almost feels like I'm starting over in terms of a social life. I consciously had to tell myself, 'You're not coming back to the same life you left.' "

He's also telling himself he's going to have to adjust to a smaller living space, going from a 2,500-square-foot home with a pool to a condo of about 1,000 square feet. But he's focused on what he gained -- living within walking distance of the ocean.

"So despite the fact that I'm giving up 1,500 square feet, I am more than happy with the trade-off," he said.

And though Sweig is itching at the prospect of owning a place again in Los Angeles -- even one he uses on a part-time basis -- he knows the traffic and congestion that he left behind haven't exactly gone anywhere during his short hiatus.

Now he makes little of what drove him away. "I'm from Manhattan. I'm used to it."

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